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Volume 5 Issue 03 | March 2011



Original Forum

Readers' Forum

Sultana's Nightmare:
Henas and the Feminist Movement
--Shahana Siddiqui
Women in the CHT: The Violent Hills --Hana Shams Ahmed
Notes to My Successor:
The Forgotten Women of the 1971 War

--Ziauddin Choudhury
Liberating the Women of 1971
Interview with Shafina Lohani
Interview with Mahmuda Haque Choudhury

--Marianne Scholte
Woman on a Mission
--Marianne Scholte talks to Shafina Lohani
Project Post-1971
--Marianne Scholte speaks to Mahmuda Haque Choudhury
Her Home
--Shayera Moula
Photo Feature: Freedom at 40--Zahedul I. Khan

Journeys through Shadows:
Gender and armed conflict
--Bina D'Costa

Women as Decision Makers:
Are organisations ready?
--Dr. Syed Saad Andaleeb
Govern Migration, Take Women Forward --Farheen Khan
Women's Rights and the Fourth Estate
--Arafat Hosen Khan
Why Women in India Should
Defend Arundhati Roy

A Patriotic Dissenter
Empress Extraordinaire
--Rubaiyat Hossain


Forum Home



Her Home

SHAYERA MOULA provides insight into the role of the “new woman” in her land.



he modern women around the world fight for independence through education, economic power and through their practice for human equality and justice. But this choice of independence comes to our generation in a medium of a thousand salutes to those women who took the oath to stand firm in a battle towards a bigger freedom -- A National Liberation.

Yet we can't help but nurture Simone de Beauvoir's "one is not born a woman, one becomes one" school of thought and so it becomes impossible to define the woman's participation in war without reflecting on the society's contribution to her thinking capability, or as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese writes, "the contribution of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions to the social and political individualism of women".

Where Spivak reminds us, when we look at history, that "the civilizing mission" by the British Rule targeted women in India, explaining this as, "Imperialism's image as the establisher of the good society is marked by the espousal of the women as object of protection from her own kind," we cannot help but ask about the identity of these women tangled under the tug of push-and-pull conflict between the ruler and the ruled. The transfer of power from the locals to the conqueror happens according to whoever has access to these women, targeted under the political forces. According to Spivak, women, then, have no other function in the society.

Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the third world woman caught between tradition and modernization.

But more than a struggle, it becomes important to mould the identity and roles of these women into the bindings and expectations of the nation as a whole. While the men fight their war in the open battlefield, the women support and voice their war through cultural and ideological re-adjustments back home. Whether the change in her mother tongue, or what she wears and how she identifies her lifestyle to the new woman awaiting the birth of her new nation, it becomes her duty. The war women safeguard their husbands, sons and sons' friends in their homes, the war women as nurses provide medical support and the war women as rape victims hide their shame by never speaking of the brutality dusted on them. They are the strong war women keeping silence in their domestic sphere. They may appear ordinary but their psychological and emotional preparedness against the outside world is never underestimated.

In this dignified role as biological and cultural reproducers of the nation, because they are the mothers and the teachers of the future families, it is however important to note how much of the role of women in war belong to their choice. In fact, even before we address the women's battle within a nation, it is important to ask: what is in fact a nation? Benedict Anderson has already concluded that we all live in The Imagined Communities because "the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in their minds of each lives the image of their communion"

"A nation is a soul," says Renan. It is therefore, an invisible passion to belong, or what Benedict Anderson defines as "self-determination". It is when someone says that they are part of a nation that they simply become a part of it. The feeling of patriotism lies in the heart and it is felt or imagined that there is unity. We cannot separate a nation and the individual and in the passion of promoting nationalism, we lose sight of individual voices. "Individuals as nationalized subjects become not a diverse and hierarchal mixture of different manners and customs but transparent and equal to one another" Note how we always recall the statistics during and after a war about the number of soldiers, the number of victims? It is because individualism seizes to exist in this period of time.

But coming back to the placing of women during war, Partha Chatterjee clearly draws upon a private-public dichotomy of the separation of gender roles -- placing the men outdoors and in the battlefield and the women in their domestic spheres.

Partha Chatterjee's essay "The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question," provides an understanding of what Indian Nationalism meant where he problematises the woman's question by showing how women coped with societal changes themselves. Gulam Murshid says that modern Bengal can be seen as a "penetration of western ideas" which had limited success as India suddenly began, at the same time, to glorify its past, and "defend everything traditional". Chatterjee questions the adjustments of 'new India' devoid of British materialism where Bankimchandra in the essay "Women and the Nation" explains that "Self-interested men are mindful of the improvement of women only to the extent that it furthers their self-interest" This, he points out, is the trouble with looking for the voices of women in nationalist discourse.

The "new woman" was made to be a balance of tradition with the guidance of education for the sake of being a better mother and wife: Radharani Lahira writes (1875): "Of all the subjects that women might learn, housework is the most important" Kundamali Debi notes: "If you have acquired real knowledge, then give no place in your heart to memsahib like behavior" In consequence, the new woman had to make sure she was educated enough to understand her role in her home.

From such quotes, however, it is hard to believe that the "new woman" was struggling with the new nationalism. The question remains as to whether it is they themselves speaking or is it something they are saying to adhere as the ideal nationalist woman? The women accepted in the national discourse were the "reverse of the 'common' women who was coarse, vulgar, loud, quarrelsome, devoid of superior moral sense, sexually promiscuous, subjected to brutal physical oppression by males"

The one autobiography discussed by Chatterjee is of the woman who was not part of the educated middle class, memoirs of Binodini (1863-1941), who speaks of her journey from the slums to the theatre, reflects on betrayals rather than social solidarity. A rich admirer of hers broke the promise to name a theatre after her; her teacher refused to accept her work unless it was titled "the great moral lesson in the insightful life of an ordinary prostitute" which she couldn't accept and her daughter was never accepted in any school.

The role of woman and her nation is then significant when she is transformed to fulfill the cultural needs of the higher class in order to represent the new values.

Any sign of gender marginalisation is noticeable only through her story. She, who in no way could maintain the social requirements of a respectable woman, gives us the voice of sufferings (to the social changes) which the other women in various memoirs had given consent to.

Women and the re-definition of social roles both take on a heavy chore while the nation undergoes its own political, cultural and geographical changes. We must remember that while the many lives are lost at war, it is their wives, sisters and daughters back home who embrace this loss with courage as they prepare themselves to re-build and maintain the nations' new state of laws and ideologies. The political centre in their homes during 1971 built the foundations that determined the future, meaning our present.


Benedict Anderson, The Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1983.

Partha Chatterjee, "The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question," in Recasting women: Essays in Colonial History, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989.

Partha Chatterjee, "Women and the Nation," in The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Post Colonial Histories, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Homi Bhabha, Nation and Narration : "What is a nation?", Routledge, London, 1990.


Shayera Moula is Sub-Editor, Forum.

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